An Engine for solving societal problems

MIT’s accelerator brings an incubator and funding to startups that matter.


“One of my frustrations as an academic is that over the last twelve years we’ve produced a lot of really useful methods and techniques, and almost none of them has been put into practice,” one prominent MIT professor told me earlier this year. “This is not an unusual problem for academics. But it’s frustrating to have things that you know could help and they’re not helping.”

Generating the intellectual property (IP) is only the very first step on the road to the real world. Established companies often are not very interested in IP, even game-changing IP. They are more likely to want prototypes, and people who know how to build the prototypes.

They want, in brief, to work with startups.

That’s one reason why this professor launched a startup. It’s also one reason why MIT actively spreads the entrepreneurial gospel to students and staff who might not have considered it a few years back, and keeps deepening its “environmental ecosystem” of competitions and advisory networks and resources like the Startup Exchange.

And it’s the thinking behind the Engine, the startup accelerator that MIT president L. Rafael Reif announced yesterday. The Engine will combine an incubator with funding for startups focused on real needs.

“When it comes to the most important problems humanity needs to solve — climate change, clean energy, fresh water and food for the world, cancer, and infectious disease, to name a few — there is no app for that,” as Reif explained in the Boston Globe. “We believe the Engine will help deliver important answers for addressing such intractable problems — answers that might otherwise never leave the lab.”

Venture capitalists do a reasonable job of funding many tech companies, but very few VCs are interested in startups that may take more than five years to pay off. The Engine won’t sponsor quick-turnaround firms, or companies that join the thundering herds of marketing middlemen, or oddities like the outfit that claims to deliver wine matched to your DNA.

Instead the funds might go to biotechs, like Oxalys, which do very well if they can even get their drug candidates into first clinical trials within a few years. Or makers of industrial products, like Dropwise’s energy-saving coatings for power plants, which manufacturers probably will adopt quite slowly because that’s how that industry works. Or any number of truly innovative, truly needed products and services.

It will take a decade or more to see how the Engine’s bets turn out. Many will fail. But these are bets we need.

Mind the gap, manufacturers

Say you’re a professor at a major research university. You’re brilliant, of course, and well-funded. Some of your well-guided hotshot grad students and postdocs create a technology that shrieks out for commercialization, and the university’s intellectual property folks plunge into patenting.

Maybe the hotshots then get together with a veteran executive or two and sell the idea to a venture capital firm. Their startup is off and running, and the world awaits with joy.

Or maybe the venture capitalists are otherwise occupied that month, the hotshots wander off to the next great opportunity and the idea sits on the shelf.

All too often, professors tell me, the major manufacturers who might really exploit the technology show no interest in bringing it to market from that stage. Their development ecosystem doesn’t work like that—they want to buy the startup when it has shown progress commercializing the work. They want not just patents but people, understandably enough.

This does make you wonder, though, whether more manufacturers should consider extending their own research groups a little further down the food chain to cherrypick a few of the best available intellectual properties and bring them forward much as a startup would. Maybe a few million dollars invested in this form of intrapreneuring would pay off very, very well down the road.